Thursday, April 29, 2010

What is orientation, anyway?

(This is the first in a short series of posts about sexuality and gender)
I had the opportunity to enjoy a wonderful, long conversation with a new friend last night that covered a whole range of topics, from politics to feminism to grandparents. Beer was enjoyed by all. Much commiserating about life occurred. Many insights were shared.

One of the really interesting ones for me was actually something that I said, which is weird because I hadn't thought about it much before this particular conversation. Go privilege! We were talking about orientation, and I realized (as I was saying it) that I'm not really sure what orientation is.

I identify as straight - in common understanding, that would mean I'm attracted to women, right? But in muddied, complicated world of sexuality and gender, what does that really mean? Does it mean that I am attracted sexually only to people who are female-bodied? What if they identify as men, and look like boys or men? Body parts without context (or, say, the rest of a human attached to them) are not particularly interesting to me sexually, so my orientation isn't based solely on body parts and genitals.

Does my straightness mean that I am attracted to people who LOOK the way I've been socialized to assume women look? Am I attracted to a series of cosmetic and maybe clothing choices like long hair, skirts, certain hip/waist ratios? Male-bodied people can definitely choose to wear skirts if they want, and some male-bodied people will have similar hip/waist ratios as female bodied ones (probably fewer, but still enough).

Does my straightness mean that I am attracted to behavior? Am I looking for signs of traditional femininity in my partners? A certain passiveness, delicateness, and so on? So far, my actual life choices would indicate that I'm not the biggest fan of traditional femininity in behavioral terms - I tend to be interested in more aggressive partners.

So, if I can't pin down my orientation based on body type, presentation, or behavior, what the hell is it governed by? I have traditionally identified as straight both because I thought it was somehow objectively true for myself, but also because I didn't want to appropriate any marginalized sexualities to try and make myself look cooler or more interesting as a member of the gender justice world. I've never described myself as queer because I've never felt like I lived the non-standard sexuality (and subsequent marginalization) that the term implies. The society around me has more or less always supported my attractions and sexuality, even if it wasn't able to really provide a clear message about what that sexuality was (I mean, aside from NOT being gay, whatever that meant).

One of the messages the gender justice movement has been able to send to people pretty well is the idea that gender is not a binary: the world does not consist of men and women, who each evince certain personality traits and body types without any overlap. We recognize that there are many, many different genders. Many activists will describe gender on a continuum, but I don't even like that framework because I think it's still too narrow. Likewise, orientation falls the same way. I'm not attracted to all women. I'm not attracted to all female-bodied people. My orientation is some strange hybrid of genetic predisposition and socialization that drives my interests. Orientation, like gender, is more like a plot on a map than a place on a continuum, and it's CERTAINLY a lot more varied than a check box of straight, gay, or bi.

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